Since the book I’m currently working on started from a very old idea, I’ve been having to flesh out what was actually an underdeveloped world, and trying to figure out what that world looks like has made me really think about worldbuilding.
Since the only world we know is the one we live in, we naturally tend to base our imaginary worlds on aspects of our world. How close the imaginary world is to our world depends on the author. Even a really different world is probably going to be at least partially based on or inspired by something in our world.
Traditional “secondary world” fantasy (in other words, an imaginary world rather than an alternate history of our world) is generally set in a quasi-medieval European society. I’m not sure where that convention got started. Maybe it comes from fairy tales, which are always in the “long ago.” Or maybe Arthurian legends had something to do with it, especially during the Gothic Revival trend of the Victorian era, with the idealized depiction of the Middle Ages that was popular in art of that time. There was the sense that this was a better, purer time, with chivalry, and all that.
The Lord of the Rings, which is sometimes considered the start of the modern fantasy genre, is actually all over the map, timewise. The hobbits are essentially Edwardian English country gentry. They have that idealized pastoral life and even that attire. That waistcoat and suit coat look wasn’t just an invention of the movies. There are references in the books to waistcoats and buttons — things you wouldn’t have found in a medieval setting. But then the human and elf societies come across as closer to fairy tale medieval.
Anyway, medieval-ish Europe has been the basic traditional fantasy setting, though the genre is now expanding a lot, incorporating elements from other cultures and time periods. How closely these fantasy settings adhere to any actual history or culture is up to the author. Purists may try to stick as closely as possible to the clothing, culture, and technology of the specific place and time they’re basing their world on. You’re not going to find potatoes — something brought back from the New World — in this kind of world if that world is based on Europe before the 1600s. These authors may be meticulous about accurately representing the cultures they’re using as the basis for their worlds, even if it’s not actually presented as that culture. Sometimes it’s really obvious which culture an author is basing their world on, even if the author isn’t being that meticulous. I’ve read several secondary world fantasies that involve a fierce, warlike culture of mostly redhaired people who wear plaid, talk like “I dinna ken, ye wee lassie,” and probably live on the northern border. Or as I call it, Not!Scotland. There are a lot of Not!Lands in fantasy. It may not be overt, but you can figure out what the various cultures are supposed to be.
Others may figure that if it’s another world, anything goes. They can pick the clothing they like, change it up, throw in different kinds of technology that’s advanced at different rates, mix and match cultures, and move things around to create something fairly new. There may be whiffs of Not!Lands that give you a hint of what might have been the inspiration, but there’s probably a lot that doesn’t come from those places.
The really tricky thing for writers is that a lot of readers assume that your cultures are Not!Lands, whether or not they are, and they’ll expect you to have represented the way that land is in our world accurately in your imaginary world. Writers get angry e-mails from readers about what they got wrong in their totally imaginary world. Frequently, they’ve guessed wrong about what the writer based that culture on. I will confess that it does kind of throw me out of a story when potatoes show up in a quasi-medieval European fantasy world, and I have to remind myself that this is another world. Potatoes may grow naturally on that continent. The potato-growing continent might be a lot closer. The Not!Vikings might have made it farther south in their New World and brought potatoes back to their continent a lot sooner.
I’m having to deal with all of this in writing now because I’m doing my first true secondary world (unless you count the portal world of Spindled). Last year, I spent a lot of time on worldbuilding to create a setting for a series of books I’m still developing, and I think I went a bit overboard in trying to make it fit rigidly in the time period I chose to base it on. I’d picked a period when I liked the women’s clothing and some aspects of the men’s clothing, but there were also things I didn’t want to use about men’s styles in that era, and I had to remind myself that I was making it all up. It’s my world. I can make it go however I want to.
The book I’m working on now keeps trying to turn into a western. It’s that kind of terrain in part of the story, and there’s a small town that the loner hero arrives in. My mental imagery of how they’re dressed is closer to western than medieval, and yet there’s a lot of medieval in the structure of the society. I was struggling with the back and forth, then realized I didn’t have to pick one or the other. This doesn’t have to be an alternate history of the Old West in the United States. It can be a European quasi-medieval world with a western flavor. Heavy boots and twill trousers are a lot more practical in that setting than doublet and hose. The guy dressed kind of like a cowboy can have a sword belt instead of a gun belt. I’m not sure how much of this will actually make it into the book. It’s mostly an aesthetic, my mental images, and I don’t know if the way I describe it will give the same mental image to readers, but I think having this in mind might make my world a little different from the generic quasi-medieval European fantasy world. The important thing is that there be an internal consistency to the world that makes sense.